Why China is not a cultural power

Following is the transcript of a speech given in May 2010 at Xiamen University in China. Adapted from a translation by Annie Lee.

Hello everyone. This is my second time in Xiamen, the air is so clean here, no wonder everybody likes to go for walks. (translator’s note: a reference to a large street protest which took place in Xiamen in 2007, and attracted national media attention.)

Just now, when Mr. Deng mentioned patriotism, two quotes came to mind, not from me though, from others. The first one is “patriotism is the last sanctuary for scumbags”, and the second one is “real patriotism is to protect the country from any kind of government persecution”.

Today I’ve prepared for the speech, I brought a script, to restrain myself in case you guys get persecuted because of my irresponsible remarks.

Here we go.

Leaders, teachers, and students: greetings! Do you know why China is not a cultural power? Because in most of our speeches, “leaders” always come first, and our leaders have no culture. Moreover, they are scared of culture, but their job is to censor it, so they can control culture. How can a country become a cultural power like that? What do you say, leaders?

Actually China has the potential to become a big cultural force. Let me tell you a story. I serve as editor in chief for a magazine that couldn’t get its publishing license until now. The constitution bestows us with press freedom, on the other hand our laws bestow our leaders with the freedom of preventing you from exercising press freedom. Some of the magazine’s content didn’t pass censorship — e.g. because there was a cartoon of a man in it with no clothes on — obviously not acceptable, because relevant laws and regulations specify that we cannot put private parts on public magazines. I understand this, so I covered the illegitimate part with a big logo of the magazine. Then the publisher and the people from the censoring department turn around and say: no can’t do, you can’t obscure the Party’s Central Committee. (translator’s note: 党中央 Party’s Central Committee and 挡中央 obscuring the center, are homophones) My reaction was just like you guys: dumbfounded. I thought to myself: “Gee, it would be so much better if you’d invest such brilliant imagination into literary and artistic creation instead of censorship.”

This story tells us that people are full of imagination. Of course lots of things can only exist in our minds, we cannot carry them out, we cannot write about them, most of the time we can’t even talk about them. Too much restraint is required from us. Just as there are rated movies, there are also rated countries. We live in a rated country. How can a rated country foster an abundant culture? I exercise relatively little self-restraint, however when I write I still cannot help but remember to avoid writing about this policeman, that leader, this policy, that regulation, and this piece of legislation. Skipping many stories about Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations; not touching on fads, pornography, boycotts, arts. But elegance is what I am incapable of. I am really at a disadvantage in that area, I am not Yu Qiuyu.

On the Internet on the other hand I enjoy somewhat more freedom, relatively speaking. Many playwrights I know, like Ning Caishen, they suffer a lot. So I keep wondering how a country with such a cultural environment can ever manage to become a cultural force. Maybe if only China, North Korea and Afghanistan are left on Earth. North Korea is a cultural no-fly zone, no question about that. Afghanistan cannot spare to manage culture as long as they have plenty of other worries. Even so, there is a writer who published a book called “The Kite Runner“, but regretfully that book isn’t published in Afghanistan either. I think it is not impossible for Afghanistan to exceed China once they clean up their domestic mess.

We can’t forever keep talking about the Four Classics or Confucius’ Analects during exchanges with people from other nations. It’s like when your date asks you about your financial situation, and you say your ancestors several generations ago were really rich. Pretty useless.

The making of this tragedy has nothing to do with you guys. The road to North Korea is built by everybody’s silence. But on the one hand we are much stronger than North Korea, because we all know what it looks like. On the other hand, I believe most of you guys are not silent, you are just harmonized, that’s all. In the history of China’s campaigns against pornography, I think most of you know – you are college students after all, though these contents have disappeared from today’s textbooks — that Teresa Teng and Liu Wen Cheng were considered pornographic, low and obscene. But as the number of people who listened to their music increased, suddenly when the whole country started listening to them, they were no longer considered low nor obscene.

Only when we fight against cultural censorship, when we liberate phrases and words from the “sensitive words database“, with the exception of inhumane words, only then will China stand a chance to become a cultural power. Even if your and my name go into that database for a while, I believe there is a ceiling to the number of words the database can contain. Every time a new one goes in, it pushes the whole thing closer to its ceiling until one day, it comes crashing down.

So I hope our press people, our students and teachers, everyone who loves and engages in culture, including every webmaster, can make an effort to decrease the amount of censorship and bring down the number of blocked words and blocked websites. I also hope that our leaders and our government can be confident enough to set culture free. I know that our leaders like to export our culture, as this is the hallmark of a powerful country.

Unfortunately, the amount of available culture is too humble to go abroad. When our writers write, they are constantly self-censoring. How can any presentable works come to life when they are born under such environment? You castrate all of the works like news reports and present them to foreign audiences, hoping it would sell. Are foreigners aliens then?

Whether China is a strong economic player I don’t know, no conclusion can be drawn until our real estate market comes back down to Earth; but when a country grows big culturally, then it is a powerful country indeed, and I see no risk of it ever crashing for a country like this.

Now let me come back to the blocked words database. The more entries it has, the weaker the country’s culture becomes. But our government can justify itself; they tell you it is to protect our teenagers, to maintain social stability. Culture is boundless, so they have the right to block any information and culture that harms our teens and threatens social stability. If you consent to this, then sooner or later when you complain about your own mistreatment, you will find yourself blocked, and charged with threatening social stability yourself. In the end, whoever poses threats to the ruling class or their interests will be condemned with the charges of harming teenagers and threatening social stability.

If we become supporters of the Green Dam Project, we will find culture is not the only thing dying. So guys, we can’t let this day come, otherwise we will all become jokes in the e-history books our grand children download by satellite.

Thank you all.

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